This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Georgetown, Guyana – The only English-speaking nation in South America has one of the continent’s best track records for Amazon rainforest protection – and an ad hoc patrol group of Indigenous farmers, teachers, and hunters tracking loggers and wildcat miners is part of the reason why.
At one point last year, a three-person team from the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC), an umbrella group of Indigenous communities, was on a routine jungle patrol near Guyana’s border with Brazil.
They were accosted by a gang of gold miners and threatened with automatic weapons, said Kid James, programme co-ordinator for the SRDC, a Wapichan Indigenous council that administers conservation initiatives.
While team members escaped the encounter without injuries, James said the incident highlights the threats conservationists can face trying to protect the world’s largest rainforest. “The mining activity was almost in a wild west state,” James told Al Jazeera.
After their members were threatened, the SRDC made formal complaints with Guyana’s mining regulators. They received a serious response. Guyana’s minister of natural resources visited the area later that year, James said, and the ensuing public pressure from authorities and residents led to a significant decline in the level of informal mining in the area for about eight months.
Part of the effectiveness of conservation patrols by groups like the SRDC is that they can keep a more regular presence in remote parts of the jungle than government regulators, James said.
The SRDC works with 18 part-time conservation officers who know the rural terrain and can track deforestation with cameras, GPS technology, drones and satellite phones. They make regular patrols on motorbikes, boats, and even on foot, and relay their findings back to police and other government regulators.
“The Wapichan territory can still boast a high level of biodiversity, very pristine forest, clean fresh water and we want to make sure that is maintained,” James said. “We have a programme that’s working, though it’s not perfect.”
As deforestation spikes across much of the Amazon, exacerbating climate change and hurting biodiversity, environmentalists say Guyana offers useful lessons for protecting the world’s largest rainforest.
High forest cover
About 82 percent of Guyana’s territory is covered by humid forest, said Liz Goldman from the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington-based tracking group.
That’s the highest rate on the continent aside from neighbouring Suriname and French Guiana, she told Al Jazeera, adding that other Amazon nations range from 35 to 52 percent of land covered by primary forest.
Meanwhile, trees, in general, cover more than 90 percent of Guyana’s territory, Goldman said, and “both primary forest loss and tree cover loss in Guyana is trending down in recent years.”
Part of Guyana’s conservation success comes down to simple demographics: the country is sparsely populated and much of its Amazonian interior is not developed.
With fewer than 800,000 residents, Guyana has about four people living on each square kilometre of land, according to the World Bank, compared with 25 residents per square kilometre in neighbouring Brazil where deforestation has spiked.
Once known for sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, deforestation and wildfires have turned the Brazilian Amazon into a net source for new carbon emissions, according to a study based on satellite data published in August from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).
Brazil destroyed 13,235 square kilometres (5,110 square miles) of rainforest last year, an area larger than Lebanon, according to official data published in November.
This has dangerous implications for global climate patterns, according to environmentalists, though the rest of the Amazon outside of Brazil remains a net sink for carbon dioxide.
Another element of Guyana’s conservation success stems from public buy-in, residents in the capital said. Despite sharp divides along ethnic and class lines, there seems to be broad consensus that the country’s identity is tied to its natural beauty and rainforests are worth protecting, especially with an onslaught of new oil investment.
“If we take out all the oil and don’t preserve the forests, it won’t be good in 30 years,” said hotel porter Nicholas Blair. “It’s a balance.”
That sentiment is echoed by Simeon Taylor, a security contractor in the capital. “Protecting our biodiversity is crucial,” he said, sipping a cold beer at a neighbourhood pub on a recent weekend.
‘Strong verification’ for logs
When it comes to logging, Guyana also has “a strong verification system” to make sure trees from illegally deforested land aren’t easily exported or sold domestically, said Aiesha Williams, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s local branch.
“This tracking of deforestation has been important,” Williams told Al Jazeera during an interview in the conservation group’s Georgetown office. “Most deforestation is related to gold mining.”
Her group works with James and the SRDC, along with other remote Indigenous communities, on providing technical assistance on forest protection, including the satellite phones and GIS kits they use to track wildcat gold miners.
With vast porous borders, miners from Brazil and other neighbouring countries, along with domestic prospectors, have been entering areas like the Rupinuni in greater numbers recently, she said.
“The threats to the forests are increasing and so must our efforts,” said Williams.
Guyana’s Forestry Commission, a government body tasked with protecting the rainforest, did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment.
One of the most effective strategies for forest protection involves formal recognition of Indigenous land rights, according to scientists. And part of Guyana’s relative success in rainforest protection relates to its land titling system, said James.
“Guyana has some of the strongest legislation in place to protect those land rights,” he said, though he would like to see the process sped up. “Once title is given to a community it’s absolute and forever, unlike in other countries.”
Forest land formally controlled by Indigenous communities has the best outcomes for conservation and biodiversity, according to two major studies on rainforest protection from Peru and Brazil published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In Peru, within a two-year window after land title was granted to an Indigenous community, forest disturbance on average dropped by roughly two-thirds, and clearing dropped by more than three-quarters, a 2017 study found.
Part of the reason why deforestation has intensified so rapidly in Brazil in the past two years under the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is that Indigenous land rights haven’t been respected, scientists said.
Wildcat miners and loggers have been tacitly encouraged to enter Indigenous reserves for extraction, leading deforestation in South America’s largest country to hit a 15-year high in November.
Indigenous communities in Guyana hold land title to about 13 percent of the country’s territory, according to data from the UN Development Programme. Local communities are pushing the government to speed up granting formal titles for ancestral forest lands which cover larger swaths of rural Guyana.
“If those traditional lands can be recognised, having it absolute and forever in the hands of local communities who can manage and control those areas — that would deter threats like mining and illegal logging at the local level,” James said.